After atheism, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop

In New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed, Scott Alexander explains how New Atheism was a much bigger phenomenon than younger people realize, and theorizes about its demise.  Scott’s hypothesis is that New Atheism seamlessly transitioned into the social justice movement (while leaving the remaining atheist movement behind with all the anti-social-justice folks).  I don’t entirely agree, but I’ve advocated similar theories myself.

But as much as I enjoy theorizing about the demise of New Atheism, I’d like to highlight a point Scott makes in his conclusion:

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

The “current trend”, the current paradigm of the culture wars, is social justice.  As a former atheist activist, and current social justice activist, I am perpetually concerned that social justice will crash and burn the same way atheism did.  I mean, isn’t it practically guaranteed?  Do you really think that 10-20 years down the road, people will be concerned about the same things?

Here’s how I expect it to go.  Some new issue will appear that divides social justice activists.  Initially it will seem like just another internal argument like we have all the time, but it will prove persistent, and fatal.  Most people get fed up and leave, and some will switch to the next big thing.

And then, the younger generation will start talking about social justice like it was always ridiculous.  They’ll have little understanding of how much they owe to social justice.  They’ll be keenly aware of the excesses of the movement.  They’ll believe in all the negative stereotypes of us–screeching blue-haired women who insist that nobody is allowed to speak unless they have a long list of labels.  Social justice will continue to be an important issue, but hardly anyone will recognize it or fight for it, because it’s become a bad word.

This is why I think it’s so important to defend the atheist movement.  It’s true, the atheist movement had some excesses–so many excesses.  But some of the things that people say about atheists these days are basically stereotypes that we used to fight all the time.  And religion may not be the root of all evil, and it never was, but it is at least a factor, and one that social justice activists ought to pay more attention to.

This is all speculative fiction at this point, but I find myself always guessing at what will play each of the parts.  What will be the next big issue?  Will it be, as Scott speculates, class?  Will it have something to do with TERFism and its descendants?  Will it relate to the 2020 US election, and Brexit?  Will it be something else entirely?  And what will people of the future see as the excesses of social justice?  The abundance of identity labels?  The false dichotomy of oppressor vs oppressed?  Will the “excess” be something bullshit like “cancel culture“?

Or maybe none of this will come to pass.  One can always hope that social justice dies of old age, instead of running off a cliff.  I can’t predict the future.

I hope this explains my mindset in approaching social justice, why I follow the principles of moderation and independent thought.


  1. colinday says

    Maybe the “excesses” of New Atheism were things it got plain wrong, and that the social-justice movement should try to be factually correct.

  2. says

    the social-justice movement should try to be factually correct.

    And who gets to decide what facts to accept, O person who I have repeatedly seen arguing against trans rights?

  3. aspleen says

    I’ve lived long enough and read enough history to know that there have been atheistic movements that have come and gone before, enough to know that after getting your 15 minutes of fame you still do have a life left. After all, we still remember and find Diderot, Hume, Ingersoll, and Russell worth reading. (Other’s like O’Hair not so much.) I’m fairly certain that Dawkins and Dennett will be remembered while Hitchens, eh, his contrarianism will diminish his legacy I think.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pls note that vague terms get shuffled around easily all the time.

    In the early-middle 20th century US, “Social Justice” meant the politically-crusading organization & newspaper of “Radio Priest” Fr. Charles Coughlin, a strident Hitler sympathizer.

  5. springa73 says

    There also seems to be a cyclical element to what people are most concerned about. Class, gender, race, sexuality, religion/atheism all have periods where they are the “big thing” that commands the most concern, until they are pushed into the shadows by something else. The problems haven’t gone away at all, but attention has shifted.

    People seem to have a real problem admitting that there are lots of problems in society and that they are all important and all need addressing. Perhaps focusing on one particular issue at a time makes things seem more manageable.

  6. DonDueed says

    My vote for the next dividing factor: Capitalism. One side will maintain that all the social problems arise from the Big C, the other will assert that only an even Bigger C will be able to tackle them.

    We can see the beginnings of this right now in the Sanders/Warren wealth tax and Medicare For All proposals, and the resistance to them.

  7. says

    I don’t think the atheist movement “crash[ed] and burn[ed]”; I think we declared victory and went home. I think the only battle I think was worth winning, to eliminate religion’s automatic privilege in moral philosophy, and I think we won that battle. No one can just say “God” now and shut down the discussion. Of course, I agree that it turns out that we were wrong in our most hopeful expectation, that eliminating religion would eliminate an important class of evil, root and branch.

    I also think that the SJW movement — which I don’t really belong to — really did divide and kill the atheist movement, and good on you. I think the socialist movement — which I am a part of — might divide and kill the SJW movement, and I think if we do, we would be right to do so.

  8. aspleen says

    I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the demise of capitalism considering it’s hardly been 100 years since we did away with monarchy, and even then it’s not quite over with (see Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). It also remains to be seen what would replace a market economy. Even the People’s Republic of China has one, so it’s not as if communism is a viable alternative anymore.

  9. says

    @springa73 #5,

    People seem to have a real problem admitting that there are lots of problems in society and that they are all important and all need addressing. Perhaps focusing on one particular issue at a time makes things seem more manageable.

    Yeah, my thinking is along similar lines. And it’s not just more manageable on an individual level, and I think it’s also more manageable on a public discourse level. I did not ever believe that religion was the biggest problem in the world (and in my recollection of the atheist movement, I was in good company), it was simply *a* problem. It was easy to talk about because lots of people were talking about it. It’s harder to maintain a public conversation about multiple disparate major problems.

    I also think that the SJW movement — which I don’t really belong to — really did divide and kill the atheist movement, and good on you. I think the socialist movement — which I am a part of — might divide and kill the SJW movement, and I think if we do, we would be right to do so.

    I like your thinking–that the collapse of a movement can be for the better. I am not confident that it always happens that way though.

    @aspleen #8,
    I think you’re getting off-topic.

  10. says

    Ya I’ve had some kinds of thoughts along these lines.

    Not sure I thought that “social justice” would fade, just go through different “waves”, as it already has. Usually I think about some particular trend that looks like it’s made to fail.

    Hopefully one of these days good epistemology gets to be the big thing?

  11. says

    I think too often the trends happen at the sub-analytic level.

    My impression is that there’s just: behavior, lots of shouting back and forth, and then later it’s gone. No case built, no conclusions reached. A kind of “No think! Only do.” enactment.

    More like evolution, not intelligent design?

    Sometimes I think maybe, to an extent, learning really has to go that way…but then it kind of reminds me of children who can’t be trusted to take verbal advice for their own safety or health, and I can empathize with the difficulty parents have handling those situations (maybe I should read more about that). Surely adults should be better? Or maybe we only seem better now because we all learned the same things the hard way?

    A lot of the time these days I just look around and think “what are people doing and why? And how can I even ask them when the conversation doesn’t go to that level?”.

    Relatedly, epistemological defeatism has been on the rise for a while, not sure if it’s peaked or if it will get worse.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    I tend to have a more positive view about the arc of history bending toward justice.

    When I look back at around 1600, I see a Western culture where no one mattered other than white, aristocratic, heterosexual, cissexual, wealthy, Christian men. And the whole story of the last three hundred+ years has seen a process in which that tiny circle of power has been strenuously widened to include more and more people whose voices are heard. I don’t see the SJW movement as a decade-long blip — I see it as just the latest rebranding of a struggle that includes the English Civil War, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, the American Civil War, Womens’ Suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, the last three years have seen us taking several steps backwards, but I remain hopeful that Trumpists will remain a minority that will end up in history’s dustbin with the other regressives.

  13. siggysrobothusband says

    One point I think is missed is how fundamentally reactionary movement atheism was. He mentions the FSM, but forgets what inspires the FSM: it was a direct response to the “intelligent design” movement to smuggle Christian theology into schools, which was the subject of a major lawsuit at the time.

    In the U.S., the ‘00’s were a time of ascendant white evangelical Protestantism, with a genuine born-again convert in the White House. Plus there was 9/11 and the parallel threat of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

    Fast forward to the ‘10’s, and both Bush’s evangelical Protestantism and radical Islam have receded as political threats, and they have receded even further today as Trump’s Republican Party has abandoned any pretense of religiosity. With the threat gone, there is nothing to hold a political movement together.

  14. says

    I finally read that slate star codex post, after someone shared it elsewhere. Great stuff.

    Looking at it from that perspective of secular Hamartiology, I think we are in fact not at the final answer yet. I suspect the answer has to get to the point where it resembles “entropy”.

    Here’s another related thing I read today, about another thing I care about that doesn’t sound like “social justice” and many people will classify as capitalism stuff: the agnotology industrial complex:

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